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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Confusion over what "Active Participation" Means

It seems to me that of all of the terms found in Sacrosanctum Concillium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy given to us by the Second Vatican Council, "active participation" stands as the most misunderstood. 

This misunderstanding has not escaped the Vatican, especially the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.  According to Malcolm Cardinal Ranjinth, then secretary to the CDWDS, who quoted Pope Benedict XVI during an address the former official delivered in St. Louis in 2008:

The pope, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, defines actuosa participatio as a call to a total assimilation in the very action of Christ the High Priest. It is in no way a call to activism, a misunderstanding that spread widely in the aftermath of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Stated Cardinal Ratzinger: “what does it [active participation] mean...? Unfortunately the word was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p. 171).

We know that in many places this led to the amalgamation of the sanctuary with the assembly, the clericalization of the laity and the filling up of the sanctuary with the noisy and distracting presence of a large number of people. One could say that virtually Wall Street moved into the sanctuary. But was that really what the Council Fathers advocated? Cardinal Ratzinger does not think so. For him, “the real ‘action’ in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself. This is what is new and distinctive about Christian liturgy: God Himself acts and does what is essential” (ibid, p. 173).
Sadly, this kind of activity is something that occurs in some parishes down here in the South Texas hinterland, especially when special events find themselves imbedded within the Mass, such as birthday blessings.  For example, after the post-Communion prayer, the celebrant invites the honoree to come to the sanctuary to receive a special blessings.  Then, right before he imparts the blessing, the celebrant invites the faithful in the pews to extend their right arms to also "offer" their own blessing, so that they, too, could participate as a community.  It happened this morning when I went to Mass at another parish.  It also happens on a regular basis at my dad's parish.

While the celebrants may mean well, this "ritual" appears nowhere in the authoritative liturgical books promulgated and recognized by the Holy See.  This is not how the Church defines "active participation".  In fact, the Church actually disapproves of this.  In Ecclesia de Mysterio, the Holy See specifically states that:

2. To promote the proper identity (of various roles) in this area, those abuses which are contrary to the provisions of canon 907 are to be eradicated. In eucharistic celebrations deacons and non-ordained members of the faithful may not pronounce prayers -- e.g. especially the eucharistic prayer, with its concluding doxology -- or any other parts of the liturgy reserved to the celebrant priest. Neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant. It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to "quasi preside" at the Mass while leaving only that minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity.

Every effort must be made to avoid even the appearance of confusion which can spring from anomalous liturgical practices.
During the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the imparting of a blessing is reserved solely to the celebrant (be he a bishop or a priest).  In 2008, the CDWDS further reiterated this fact:

Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, § 2; Canon 1169, § 2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).
The faithful can certainly join their prayers to his, but, this should be done without any sort of visual manifestation.   The celebrant imparts these blessings alone, without the help of a deacon, let alone the faithful.   It would be a stretch to characterize this as "active participation" since this is not the kind of participation that is called for in Sacrosanctum Concillium. 

Perhaps Cardinal Ranjinth defines "active participation" best when he says that:

This kind of participation in the very action of Christ, the High Priest, requires from us nothing less than an attitude of being totally absorbed in Him. Says the cardinal “the point is that, ultimately, the difference between the actio Christi and our own action is done away with. There is only one action, which is at the same time His and ours — ours because we have become ‘one body and one spirit ‘with Him” (ibid p. 174).
Active participation, thus, is not a giving way to any activism but an integral and total assimilation into the person of Christ who is truly the High Priest of that eternal and uninterrupted celebration of the heavenly liturgy.

The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, too, as we know, spoke of this when it defined liturgy further as a foretaste of the “heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem towards which we journey as pilgrims, and in which Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true Tabernacle” (cf. Rev. 21:2; Col. 3:1; Heb. 8:2)-(SC 8).

Hence, everything we do should help us to achieve that and that alone is the true meaning of the “participatio”: a taking part in a bigger actio. Participatio itself is, I would say, in this sense, an ars [art] where we ourselves are not the artists; neither do we follow an art taught or handed down to us by others, but allow the Lord to be the artist through us, becoming part of what He does. As far as we are concerned, it is participatio in the order of “esse” — being. All that we do in liturgy makes us achieve that union with the eternal high priest, Christ and His sanctifying offering. The more we become part of the oratio of Christ, His eternal self-offering to God as the expiatory Sacrificial Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5), so much more would it be able to transform us into the Logos and make us experience the redeeming effects of such a transformation. Without that, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, we would radically misunderstand the “theo-drama” of the liturgy, lapsing into mere parody (cf. ibid p. 175).

We are not called to be creative during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  We are not called to invent rituals and rites and insert them into the Mass under the guise of "active participation."  In fact, both Sacrosanctum Concillium and Redemptionis Sacramentum expressly prohibit this.  Active participation means uniting our complete selves to what is happening at the altar, joining our prayers to those of the priest.  It does not mean taking on gestures (and, sadly, in some cases, words) that are proper to the celebrant alone. 

Again, Cardinal Ranjinth offers sound guidance:

As Pope John Paul II stated in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated”; and so “no one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands; it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality” (EE 52).

Indeed, liturgy is a treasure given to the Church, which is to be jealously guarded. This is so also because it is the actio Christi realized in and through the Church, which is His own Body, in its three-fold extension — the Church Victorious, the Church Purifying and the Church Militant.
Again, these celebrants may have the best of intentions, but, they are going about this the wrong way.  They can invite the faithful to join their prayers to his, but, not to the extent that they should copy the gestures that are proper to him.  It's as though we are letting the alleged "spirit of Vatican II" overrule what the Council actually said. 

This, I believe, is where the heart of the problem lies.  The Second Vatican Council did not call for some creative experimentations to infiltrate the Mass.  It was quite clear in its prohibition against anyone introducing elements into the Mass on his own authority. 

We do not have the right to alter the rites.

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